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Sweet Briar faculty unanimously votes no confidence in the president and board

Sweet Briar College’s library. (Berline Lefevre/Sweet Briar College.)

The Sweet Briar College faculty  held a unanimous vote Monday night to declare that they have no confidence in the president and board of trustees, formally asking them all to resign.

The vote has no legal impact. But it is unusual, and sends a strong message, for faculty to collectively issue a vote of no confidence in college leaders.

Sweet Briar’s president, James Jones, astonished the campus community earlier this month when he announced that the 114-year-old school in Sweet Briar, Va., would shut down this summer because the financial challenges facing the private women’s college had become insurmountable.

 Alumnae have been leading efforts to reverse that decision, including a legal request last week for the president and board to resign. Faculty members have questioned the financial data presented by the school’s leaders and proposed alternatives to allow the college to continue operating. On Monday the Amherst County attorney filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Virginia commonwealth seeking to stop the college from closing.

Read more about that lawsuit here. 

Faculty debated the wording quite a bit over the last couple of weeks, said Cathy Gutierrez, a professor of religious studies, in particular wondering if the board would agree to their request last week for a meeting. She said board members said they would meet with the faculty’s executive committee but would not listen to proposals for keeping the college open, “which is what we wanted to discuss.”

Fifty-three of the school’s 75 professors were at the meeting, and all voted yes.

Here is the full text:

Whereas the first responsibility of the Board of Directors of Sweet Briar Institute and the President of the College is to protect and carry forward the vision of Indiana Fletcher Williams, as indicated in her will, to maintain in perpetuity a college that educates women, and
Whereas the current Board of Directors unanimously voted to abdicate that responsibility, and
Whereas the Board of Directors and President have failed to enact even the most fundamental actions that are the responsibility of any college administration, namely to conduct a search for a new Dean of Enrollment Management and a Vice President for Development when needed and to enact a major capital campaign, and
Whereas the Board of Directors and President did not enact measures to refocus and resize the College as an alternative to closure, and
Whereas there are valid ways of interpreting the financial data that do not lead to the dire conclusions the Board of Directors reached and the drastic decision they have made, and
Whereas many other small colleges and universities have overcome daunting financial challenges against considerable odds, raising the question as to whether the closure of the College was in fact the only sensible response to the current financial situation, and
Whereas the decision of the Board of Directors to close the College was made without consultation with the Faculty and other stakeholders of the College in any stage of the process, and without allowing any or all of those groups to propose solutions to the current financial challenges, and
Whereas the Faculty, the Alumnae, and a group of former Board members have at least one plan in development that could allow the College to continue to operate, and
Whereas, since the announcement of closure, the Board has continued to shut out the Faculty from any substantive dialogue,
Therefore, be it resolved that wethe Faculty of Sweet Briar College hereby registera vote of no confidence in the Board of Directors of the Sweet Briar Institute and the President of the College,and we respectfully ask that the Directors and President resign.

Christy Jackson, a spokeswoman for the college, sent a statement in response to the faculty vote:

“Prior to yesterday’s vote, the executive committee of the Board of Directors agreed in good faith to meet with the Faculty Executive Committee to listen to their concerns and answer questions.  Despite yesterday’s action, the Board’s executive committee still intends to honor that commitment.
“We were surprised and disappointed in the faculty’s decision to have a vote ahead of that meeting.
“The Board explored a number of potential solutions, including mergers and collaborations with other institutions, curricular changes and coeducation, and after a review of the College’s insurmountable financial, enrollment and operational challenges, determined that the only responsible option available was to close.
“A change in Sweet Briar’s leadership will not change these challenges, but rather further destabilize an already fragile situation.”

In another largely symbolic move, Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) issued a statement acknowledging that the federal government does not have a central role in what a private college decides to do, but added that because he had heard from so many constituents, he urged the school’s leaders to act with transparency as they make decisions.

“The announced closing of Sweet Briar College earlier this month was a shock to many and represents a significant loss for Central Virginia. The decision by the Board of Directors has far-reaching economic and personal impacts on students, faculty, staff, alumnae, and the community as a whole.
“I have spoken with many working closely on this issue and have urged them to be committed to transparency and consider every feasible option available for the school, including efforts to preserve it as an important institution of higher education.
“As the representative for Amherst County and the individuals who are employed by and attend this historic institution, it is my hope that every effort will be made to continue to fulfill Sweet Briar’s mission.
“The best way to ensure that is through transparency, openness, and integrity on the part of those handling decisions about the college’s future.”

The mood at the faculty meeting was upbeat, Gutierrez said, despite knowing it wouldn’t have a legal impact.  “We needed to do this, for us.”

What she’ll remember most was after the meeting, when one of the professors was so proud of the vote that he asked for a group photo. “It was one of the most surreal, sincere experiences of my life,” she said.

“It was 55 people cramming into the center of an auditorium to commemorate this good moment of a terrible thing. It was very strange — in a good way.”